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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 11th February 2005

Bluebird Dining Rooms

The glossy posse is in uproar about the fact that London Fashion Week is taking place in Battersea Park this year, but at least they'll be able to pop into the Bluebird Dining Rooms for lunch. This new restaurant, the first joint venture from Sir Terence Conran and his son Tom, is bound to appeal to the fashionistas, given it's lineage. But before arranging to have lunch there they'd better make sure they can put it on expenses.

This restaurant used to be the dining room of the private members' club tucked away behind the Bluebird, one of Sir Terence's more expensive London eateries, and it has retained an atmosphere of quiet, yet-to-be discovered exclusivity. I went there on a Wednesday evening and while it wasn't empty, it wasn't full, either. It's almost impossible to find, the entrance being through an unmarked doorway on Beaufort Street, so there's zero possibility of walk-in traffic. It's unapologetically aiming to be an upmarket destination restaurant, a competitor to the Ivy and Le Caprice.

On the strength of my visit, it's unlikely to succeed. My starter of dressed crab contained so little actual crab meat that my dining companion and I burst out laughing when the waiter put in on the table--it was, to all intents and purposes, a plate of watercress and lettuce leaves--and even though my main course of beef on the bone was excellent the waiter forgot to bring the root vegetables I'd ordered. He may have been having a bad day--perhaps he was put off by the rude reception I'd given the previous course--but that's never happened to me at either the Ivy or Le Caprice. If the Bluebird Dining Rooms is hoping to compete in the premier league it's going to have to raise its game.

It's surprising that Tom and Sir Terence have chosen such an ambitious project as their first joint venture since so much appears to hang on whether it succeeds or fails. According to some veteran Conran watchers, Sir Terence has finally acknowledged that he's going to have to pass on the reins of his empire in the fairly near future and he's currently sizing up Tom for the role of heir apparent. Tom's three ventures in Notting Hill--a gastro pub and a couple of trendy cafes--hardly qualify him to run a multi-million dollar business empire, but he's the only one of Sir Terence's children who seems interested in the job.

I doubt any of Sir Terence's offspring can fill his shoes, just as none of Rupert Murdoch's children are likely to fill his. Men who combine the necessary qualities to amass huge fortunes--drive, energy, vision and, above all, a determination to succeed at any cost--rarely manage to pass them on to their children. Sir Terence claims to have given Tom a free reign at the Bluebird Dining Rooms (though I imagine he interferes at every possible juncture) and it isn't a patch on the Almeida in Islington, one of Sir Terence's newest restaurants. When I reviewed the Almeida a while back I was only lukewarm, but I've returned several times since and now rate it extremely highly. The lamb I had there a couple of weeks ago after seeing Macbeth in the theatre opposite was absolutely exquisite.

Interestingly, on the night I visited the Bluebird Dining Rooms, Sir Terence himself was dining at a nearby table, casting a weather eye over the proceedings and looking fairly dyspeptic. I fervently hoped that his son might join him, giving my companion and I a front-row seat in one of the most captivating psychodramas in the London restaurant scene. But, alas, Tom failed to materialise, leaving Sir Terence to brood and sulk as his long-suffering friends gamely tried to keep the conversation going.

I don't wish to impugn Tom's skills as a restaurateur--I actually go to his Notting Hill establishments fairly regularly--but I think he's on a hiding to nothing with this particular venture. He'd be well-advised to go back to what he knows best.

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